Play in Mind

Exploring the nature and nurture of play—past, present, and future

The Stick: The (Second) Greatest Toy Never Sold

Free play with a stick is truly free

A few years ago, while researching a book about the toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, I came across a vivid short story that reveals all of the virtues of the stick as a tool of play. Harper’s Monthly Magazine printed “The Virginians in Texas” in 1867, but its insights remain fresh and pertinent.

Girl with stick and dog
Girl with stick and dog. Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY
The tale’s action turns on the moment when little Bessie, poking around with a stick, finds a crawling insect “near ten inches long.” Thrilled, Bessie called her Uncle Frank to show him. “Tschuch a long caterpillar!” she lisped, “it’s got forty-eleven legs.” But the frontiersman knew better, quickly covered the distance, snatched Bessie away, and held the writhing creature down with the butt of his rifle. The Texan, who knew that Bessie had uncovered a venomous centipede native to the state, explained to her worried mother, “Bessie was playing with it with a stick not three inches long; if it had seized on her hand I don’t see how we could have saved her.” In those days, before antiseptics and anesthetics, Bessie’s encounter could have spelled trouble. If the centipede bit Bessie, it would have been necessary to cut the animal away with a knife. And then, how many of its 200 separate claws would have needed digging out?

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But the story wasn’t finished with the enormous bug; the commotion had roused her brother Will, who implored, “hold on, Uncle! Don’t crush it!” He then ran inside to retrieve a wide-mouthed “soda glass.” With “some little management,” Will coaxed the “reptile” into a jar that had been filled with whiskey. “Died drunk,” Uncle Frank observed drily. When asked what he had in mind, Will replied, “Oh, I’m making a museum.” It seems that the Swiss entomologist who passed through the territory a few days before had set Will to thinking.

In the space of a few paragraphs written a century-and-a-half ago, the writer captured themes that still ring: inquisitiveness then discovery at play, parental responsibility for children’s safety, inevitable but instructive risk, experience as teacher, and the budding of systematic learning that encounters with the natural world naturally spark. At the center of the story is the stick, the instrument of play and the implement for investigation.

Like all children, Bessie understood instinctually and had found out through experience not to poke a creepy insect with a finger. Children will still find a stick to probe an ant nest or prod a dead bird for the same reasons. They will use a length of driftwood to investigate a stranded jellyfish or a beached snapper because they learn to keep dangerous or putrid things at a distance with a stick. Or they may be tempted to skewer them and chase a squealing playmate. In play, a stick may help to probe a friend’s tolerance. A stick can become a magic wand or a flying broom, too. Or, when electrified by the mind, the improvised backyard lightsaber will become the Jedi’s weapon, and poking and parrying, thrusting and dodging will sharpen the eye and train the balance. Figuratively and literally, children use the stick to extend their reach.

Girl and boy with sticks
Girl and boy with sticks. Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY
In “The Virginians in Texas,” the author carefully made room for curiosity that served as a basis for both caution and exploration. Bessie’s stick proved too short for her purpose and adult guidance saved the day. But risk aside, she did not hold a wrong idea and in the end she had learned an unforgettable lesson. Her older brother, for his part, may have launched a scientific career.

When people find out that I work in a museum that holds hundreds of thousands of toys in its collections and that I write about toys, they usually ask me which one is my favorite. But that would be telling. Instead, to avoid discourtesy and for the reasons cited above, I always identify my second favorite toy: the Stick.

Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., is vice president for play studies at The Strong, editor of its American Journal of Play, and lead contributor to its re:Play Blog.

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